Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Papias And The Gospels

On some recent webcasts, James White responded to a video produced by a couple of Muslim apologists, Adnan Rashid and Hamza Tzortzis. The video is largely about the historical reliability of the gospels, and much of their discussion of the subject focuses on Papias. Similar arguments about Papias are commonly used by atheists and other critics of Christianity, not just Muslims. I've written a response on Facebook.


  1. Jason - have you read Michael Kok's _The Gospel on the Margins_?


    This seems to be an extensive argument for the Early Church falsely attributing Mark to John-Mark to legitimize it. Summary here:


    You have some of the best material on Gospel authorship and the Patristics so I'd be really interested to see you interact with this work.

    1. How would attributing the first Gospel to Mark legitimize it? Mark was a minor figure in the early church. Indeed, it's his Gospel that made him famous, not the other way around.

    2. If Mark didn't have a Gospel named after him, he'd be quickly forgotten. Barely merit a footnote in church history. He wasn't an apostle or relative of Jesus. So I don't see any motivation for the early church to falsely attribute the first Gospel to Mark in order to legitimize it.

    3. There's a whole section on that in the review on Κέλσος, where he interacts with Blomberg and the standard apologetic argument. Here's just a snippet: "Kok argues that this attribution may not be unlikely at all, especially considering how the relationship between Mark and Peter was understood. Remember that the Gospel of Mark was not a popular text among the patristic writers, and a lot of their interest in claiming apostolic authority for the text was because it was, as Kok describes, a “prestige good” and “collectible.” But it still took back seat to the other canonical Gospels in terms of its theological influence. A text associated with a disciple like Peter, but not actually written by the Peter, could allow for a greater distance between the text and the disciple’s teachings, which could account for many of the shortcomings in Mark."

      He apparently argues against the authenticity of the link to Peter with statistics on how infrequently the work is actually cited by the Fathers. If you read the review, it seems that his arguments concerning Matthew and Luke's amplification of Mark's seemingly "low" or problematic Christology could serve as alternative reasons for the lack of citation. He argues that Mark was being used to justify adoptionist & separationist Christological heresies, and, it being such an early Gospel, this was the motive to legitimize it - essentially laying claim to it - by attributing it to an associate of Peter. This seems an odd move in itself - falsely attributing authorship to a document that was already apparently causing issues. I'm not sure how that really solves any problems. Why lend it even more legitimacy if its problematic?

      Reading through it all, it seems like a bit of a conspiracy theory.

    4. I haven't had a chance to read about Kok, but on your description his thesis sounds vaguely like the Bauer thesis, or assumes the Bauer thesis? If so, then a book like The Heresy of Orthodoxy might be useful to read.

  2. Kok shows up to answer questions on Κέλσος. This is very revealing. A reader comments: “I’m not sure why an assertion of a connection to Peter would serve anyone trying to appropriate GMark to their own Christian group. ‘Heretical’ Christians could invoke Peter’s authority too, could they not? I’m not exactly following the argument there.”

    Kok's answer: "One of the main strategies that the centrist or proto-Orthodox used to defend themselves against rival Christian groups was the whole notion of “apostolic succession”, which means that there was a chain of succession of Christian leaders going back to the apostles and that “orthodox” doctrine/interpretations were carefully handed down against later schismatic “heretical” groups. These Christians attached apostolic names to the canonical Gospels (i.e. the Apostles Matthew and John, Mark as the interpreter of Peter and Luke as the interpreter of Paul) in order to legitimate these texts as “apostolic/orthodox” and to claim that they were the rightful interpreters of these texts as the apostles’ true successors. Of course, you are right to note that their opponents also claimed their own writings went back to Peter’s authority, but the proto-Orthodox response would be to just deny that is the case. For instance, in the case of the Gospel of Peter, the bishop Serapion initially permitted it to be read, but when he thought that the Gospel taught docetism (i.e. denied Jesus’ real humanity) he rejected it as unorthodox and denied that Peter could have written it."

    Um, is it me, or did Kok just really not understand the question/issue? Since he is arguing that Mark lent itself to heretical Christologies, it would seem the strategy would be for the Church to simply deny that it was Apostolic. Or, at a minimum, leave it unattributed so that it would not be seen as trumping Matthew for instance.

    1. I can see how attributing the first Gospel to Peter would legitimate it. But attributing it to Mark is a very roundabout way of deriving a Petrine pedigree or Petrine imprimatur. If one is going to resort to a pseudonym to legitimate it, why that convoluted connection?

    2. BTW, when I refer to Mark as the first Gospel, I mean "first" in the chronology of composition. The first canonical Gospel to be written. Not first in an editorial sequence (Matthew>Mark>Luke>John).

  3. Alex,

    Somebody on Facebook asked me about the article you linked a few months ago. I'll copy and paste the response I wrote on that occasion. Since the text won't fit within the word limits of a single comment here, I'll break it down and put it into a few comments:

    I haven't read Kok's book. I have read Ferguson's article. There are a lot of problems with it.

    He doesn't provide much of an explanation of why the second gospel was so influential and why the early Christians had so much interest in retaining it to begin with. The traditional view of the gospel's origins makes more sense of that situation.

    The hypothesis of anonymous gospels is highly unlikely. Ferguson doesn't interact with the arguments Martin Hengel and others have raised against it. I recently wrote a response to Bart Ehrman on the subject, and much of what I say there is applicable to Ferguson's piece:


    Ferguson's speculation that the Markan tradition "originated in Irenaeus" is false, not only because of evidence from sources outside of Irenaeus, but also because of what we know of Irenaeus himself. As Hengel noted:

    "Claus Thornton has shown that this [a passage in Irenaeus about gospel authorship] is an earlier tradition, which must be taken seriously; as the geographical references and references to persons show, it is written throughout from a Roman perspective....As Thornton has demonstrated, it corresponds to the short notes about authors in the catalogues of ancient libraries, of the kind that we know, say, from the Museion in Alexandria. Presumably this information comes from the Roman church archive." (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], 35-6)

  4. >>>>>
    Irenaeus' arguments about the gospels, especially in book 3 of Against Heresies, make little sense if he or somebody else close to his time originated the Markan tradition. One of his often-repeated themes is how the gospels and other Biblical documents are so publicly known, widely accepted, and corroborated even by many of the heretics. He's arguing from ancient tradition, not recent speculations.

    Ferguson doesn't interact with the arguments Hengel, Richard Bauckham, et al. have put forward for the Petrine character of the second gospel.

    He repeats a lot of common skeptical objections related to the gospels and the patristic evidence, and he doesn't show much awareness of the counterarguments. He brings up the popular speculation that the document Papias refers to might not be our gospel of Mark, puts forward the astonishingly implausible hypothesis that all of the later sources were dependent on Papias, and repeats the usual objections about Papias' elder not being the apostle John, Papias' unreliability, Irenaeus' bad motives, Irenaeus' bad reasoning in choosing his gospel canon, etc. I've addressed those issues many times over the years, and you can find a collection of my relevant posts at:


    The articles are arranged alphabetically, so you can navigate them that way, or you can use the Ctrl F feature on your keyboard.

  5. >>>>>
    He suggests that the patristic sources cast doubt on whether the gospel of Mark was "fully accurate". They considered it scripture, and the mainstream patristic view of scripture was that it's inerrant. In my collection of posts linked above, see my post on inerrancy in the patristic era. We have good evidence that John viewed his own gospel as scripture:


    1 Timothy 5:18 refers to Luke's gospel as scripture. In Ferguson's own translation, Papias' elder refers to how Mark "accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order". There was no objection to Mark's accuracy, contrary to what Ferguson suggests elsewhere in his post. Quadratus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and other early sources group the gospels together, including Mark, which is more difficult to explain if they thought Mark was erroneous in some way in which one or more of the others weren't.

    If Mark was considered accurate and scripture by the early Christians (e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:1:1), then why would they want to distance that gospel from Peter as much as Ferguson suggests? The question remains, if they were making up an author for a document so influential, which they considered Divinely-inspired scripture, why would they choose somebody as problematic as Mark? Here's an article I've written about how unlikely the choice of Mark would be if the early Christians were speculating or lying:


    As I note there, something like an attribution of the gospel to Silvanus or Andrew would have made far more sense than an attribution to Mark, if the early Christians were just speculating or lying.

  6. >>>>>
    Something Ferguson never addresses is why the early heretics, especially the ones the early Christians supposedly were responding to when fabricating their Markan traditions, never left any trace in the historical record of any objection to those traditions. We see objections to the authorship of the fourth gospel, the authorship of 2 Timothy, the authorship of Revelation, etc., but nothing about Mark or Peter as Mark's source. To the contrary, Markan authorship and the gospel's dependence on Peter are corroborated by early heretical and non-Christian sources, as I discuss in my response to Ehrman linked above.

    Ferguson claims that Kok's "interpretations of Irenaeus and Clement are undisputed". That's false. Kok has already corrected Ferguson, in the comments section below his post, regarding Clement. And Kok's interpretation of Irenaeus, at least as Ferguson describes it, has been widely disputed. See R.T. France's commentary on Mark (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2002), 35-41, for example. Furthermore, we have multiple lines of good evidence that Luke, which apparently used Mark as a source, was written no later than the mid 60s:


  7. My comments on Facebook quoted above were written in early September of last year. Later in the year, Ferguson added some material to the comments section of his thread.

    He brings up Hengel's work, but he doesn't address most of Hengel's arguments (what he says about ancient practices related to the naming of authors, how titles probably would have been used in early Christian libraries and church services, Tertullian's comments on literary titles, etc.). Ferguson writes:

    "NT scholar Michael Wolter argues that the titles could not have been added until, at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE, primarily because the formula 'κατά (according to) + the author' only makes sense if it was added when there were multiple gospels in circulation."

    But the "gospel according to" concept could have arisen in oral contexts and in literary contexts other than that of our canonical gospels. Luke comments that many accounts were circulating in his day (Luke 1:1). And if Matthew and Luke were using Mark in the first century, then there were already multiple gospels known to some Christians that early. The idea that the need for distinguishing among the gospels by means of titles wouldn't have arisen until "at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE" doesn't make sense.

    Furthermore, what about the other means of identifying a document's author, such as the ones Hengel and Bauckham discuss? What about oral reports of authorship, tags attached to documents, etc.?

  8. Ferguson acts as though it's sufficient for him to dismiss views like Hengel's because they aren't "necessarily" correct and there's no "definitive evidence" for them. But the issue here, as with history in general, is probability, not high probability or certainty. Even a slight probability is still a probability.

    Ferguson quotes Kok's comments about how the earliest titles of the gospels weren't "necessarily" the titles we see in the manuscript record, and he cites some later manuscripts that are exceptions to the rule. So what? The issue, again, is probability, not what's "necessarily" true or whether exceptions to a rule can be found. The manuscript record suggests that author names are the best candidates for the early titles of the gospels. Proposing some sort of radical discontinuity - as if the gospels first had titles other than the ones we know them by, then attained the traditional titles so widely and with so little dispute, with the alleged earlier titles leaving so little trace in the historical record - is deeply problematic.

    Kok goes on to say that there's no evidence that the traditional gospel titles "are independent of Papias". It's not as though we begin with a default assumption that the titles are dependent on Papias, then go about looking for any evidence that would overturn that starting point. Rather, the notion that Papias had that sort of influence, to determine gospel authorship attributions and/or gospel titles throughout the Christian world, is absurd in principle and contrary to the evidence. For example, here's an article I wrote last year about the influence Polycarp would have had on the authorship attributions of the New Testament documents:


    And Polycarp wouldn't have been alone. Other eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the apostles had to have lived into the second century. The idea that everybody, or almost everybody, would have been dependent on Papias alone for information on gospel authorship is implausible.

  9. Jason - excellent! Thx for sharing this. I have tried to post to Ferguson's blog to make some comments but they don't show up.

  10. "NT scholar Michael Wolter argues that the titles could not have been added until, at the earliest, the first half of the 2nd century CE, primarily because the formula 'κατά (according to) + the author' only makes sense if it was added when there were multiple gospels in circulation."

    I really like your response to this. I really don't even see the force of the initial argument though. You can't have a Gospel "according to" unless there are other accounts in circulation? I don't see why not. What if the person affixing the title just sees it as important to specify whose account this is?

  11. Jason- have you considered gathering up all your material on Gospel authorship and doing a book or an e-book?

    1. Alex,

      I appreciate the encouragement. I've sometimes put together collections of my material or Triablogue's material on issues like Biblical authorship, such as here, but I don't expect to be doing any books or e-books anytime soon.

  12. Great stuff here, Jason. Thanks for sharing!

    *** Funny note considering the OP, my spell check wanted to change "sharing" in my comment above to "Sharia"! ***

  13. Good response to Mr. Ferguson Jason. However, I just saw that he actually responded to your comments addressing his article some year or so ago. I think it would be useful if you responded again to his response, since leaving it hanging could cast doubt in the otherwise good arguments you present.

    1. Matthew Ferguson writes, concerning Mark:

      "the text was problematic in terms of its popularity and theology, but too early and too foundational to either be excluded or to be directly attributed to Peter."

      He doesn't interact with what I said about how highly the gospel of Mark was viewed by the early Christians. It wasn't thought to have problematic theology. And the fact that Mark was early and used by Matthew and Luke doesn't mean it had to be included in the canon. Earliness and use by Matthew and Luke don't logically lead to a need for canonization, and they didn't lead to the canonization of other documents. There are other early sources widely thought to have been used by Matthew and Luke, like Q, that weren't canonized. Ferguson isn't offering much of an explanation for why the second gospel was attributed to Mark.

      Regarding Irenaeus' use of earlier sources on gospel authorship:

      "It is circular to assume, however, that the authorial traditions are reliable, if they were derived from this library."

      Notice that he's changing the subject. I was addressing whether the authorship attributions originated with Irenaeus. Ferguson responds by quoting his previous comments about how a source earlier than Irenaeus (the library referred to above) may have been wrong in its authorship attributions. I was addressing whether there were earlier sources, not the reliability of those earlier sources.

      "Even if we grant a hypothetical attribution by this Christian library, it cannot be shown to be independent of the testimony of Papias."

      As I said in an earlier response to Ferguson, we don't begin with a default assumption that later sources were dependent on Papias. I explained some of the reasons why such an assumption is unlikely. There's no need to demonstrate independence from Papias. Rather, those who think there was a dependence on him need to demonstrate it.

    2. "Both Kok and I agree that the attribution of a gospel to Mark probably preceded Irenaeus by several decades. It may have been to another text than to the Gospel of Mark that we possess today, which I discuss below, but I never state that an attribution to John Mark as an author was derived close to Irenaeus."

      I was addressing Irenaeus' appeal to tradition. Irenaeus was arguing for the canonical gospels, not other documents, in the context under consideration. If the canonical gospels were anonymous during the earliest decades of Irenaeus' life, and attained their traditional authorship attributions later in his life (as Ferguson argues), then Irenaeus' appeal to tradition doesn't make sense. If sources like Papias attributed some document other than the canonical second gospel to Mark, how is that relevant to Irenaeus' argument? Irenaeus lived through the closing years of the timeframe when Ferguson thinks the gospels were anonymous. He would have had firsthand experience with their anonymity and the earliest stage of their acquiring the traditional authorship attributions. He wouldn't have had much need for Papias or anybody else to inform him on the matter.

      Furthermore, when people like Irenaeus and Eusebius read a source like Papias, they would have had far more of the context than we do today. So, if they thought that Papias was referring to the canonical gospel of Mark, Ferguson needs something more substantial than he's offered so far to overturn their reading of Papias. The fact that Papias refers to the document in question as disorderly isn't enough, since canonical Mark could be considered less orderly than a source Papias preferred (like the gospel of John), even though Mark does have some orderly qualities. There isn't anything in Papias' comments on the document he attributes to Mark that justifies identifying it as anything other than the second canonical gospel. And it's highly unlikely that there was some other document attributed to Mark that was circulating and discussed for multiple generations (during the time of the elder who was Papias' source and during Papias' time), only to be so widely abandoned and replaced by a different document attributed to Mark that the first document was thereafter confused with. The simpler, superior explanation is that there was only one document, our canonical Mark.

      "As for Papias’ John the Elder not being the apostle John, even Hengel and Bauckham themselves think that the author of the fourth Gospel was a different John the Elder and not the apostle John."

      I've responded to Bauckham's latest arguments on the issue, in the second edition of his book on eyewitness testimony and the gospels, here.

      "Furthermore, Kok also spends pp. 186-199 discussing Papias’ statement that the Gospel lacked τάξις ('compositional order'), a complaint that may be echoed in Luke 1:3, and how this is probably a complaint against the reliability of Mark, at least in the sense that other gospels were needed to polish and rearrange its material."

      Papias referred to Mark as accurate and as not falsifying anything. He also thought it was less polished than one or more of the other gospels and not arranged as well, as Ferguson puts it, but that sort of "reliability" is insignificant. Papias doesn't suggest that there were theological errors in Mark, historical errors, or anything like that.

    3. "But, I discuss in the essay linked above how Gaius of Rome disputed the attribution of the 4th gospel to the apostle John, and how Marcion did not corroborate the authorship of Luke. That means that the authorship of 50% of the canonical Gospels were disputed in one way or another, which is substantial."

      The percentage of gospels disputed is substantial, but the percentage of people disputing each one isn't. Marcion and Gaius were vastly outnumbered, and we have no reason to think either one of them offered a good argument for his position. If the traditional gospel authorship attributions originated in the second half of the second century, as Ferguson argues, there should have been far more controversy over the subject than we see in the historical record. If the gospels remained anonymous into the second half of the second century, it would have been easy for Jewish, pagan, and heretical opponents of Christianity to have noticed that fact, and it would have been in their interest to have made an issue of it. Even in orthodox circles, disputes over documents like Hebrews, 2 Peter, and Revelation were much more widespread than what we see with the gospels and went on for centuries. Ferguson's position offers a terrible explanation for the widespread acceptance of the gospels' authorship attributions. The attributions should have been far more disputed if they were as unfounded and as late as Ferguson claims.

      "Here is where the external evidence comes into play, since the first Christian authors who quote or allude to the Gospels in the early-2nd century CE do so anonymously, without referring to their traditional names."

      There isn't any context in which we'd expect somebody like Ignatius or Polycarp to have named a gospel author. They don't name the author of the large majority of works they quote from or allude to.

      "You do not see references to the traditional names until the late-2nd century CE, which suggests that the titles were not added until around the time of the mid-2nd century CE."

      I've explained why we should view Papias' comments on Mark as a reference to the canonical gospel, and Papias was writing before the late second century. He cites an earlier source, the elder, so the interest in and discussion of gospel authorship reflected in Papias goes back to the first century. In my response to Richard Bauckham cited earlier, I also argue that Papias refers to the authorship of Matthew and John. In addition to what I cite in that other post just linked, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue To John tells us that Papias attributed the fourth gospel to John (see section R here). As we'll see below, Marcion, his earliest followers, and the orthodox Christians they were interacting with all seem to have accepted the traditional authorship attributions of some of the gospels prior to the late second century.

      Another category of sources that ought to be mentioned here is early descriptions of the gospel authors that don't name the authors, but do reflect a significant interest in authorship and some knowledge about the identity of the authors. Justin Martyr tells us that the gospels were written by "[Jesus'] apostles and those who followed them" (Dialogue With Trypho, 103). C.E. Hill provides some examples of similar comments from other sources prior to the late second century (Who Chose The Gospels? [New York: Oxford University Press, 2010], 164-76).

    4. "It should be noted, however, that these authors are near contemporaries of Irenaeus, and may be writing within the same timespan of c. 150-185 CE in which Ehrman argues the traditional names were added."

      The best explanation for why attribution of the fourth gospel to John was so popular in such a variety of orthodox and heretical circles from the middle of the second century onward is that the attribution predated that timeframe. It's less likely that the attribution originated in the middle of the second century, then was so widely accepted so rapidly.

      "But in fact there were tons of Gospels by 'disciples,' including Peter and Thomas. Since Tertullian does not tell us which gospels Marcion was thus arguing against, we cannot assume a Gospel of John was among them"

      Tertullian suggests that Marcion and his earliest followers cited Galatians 2:9 against the gospels other than their version of Luke (Against Marcion, 4:3; cf. 1:20). And we know which other gospels Tertullian had in mind. He was defending the canonical gospels. See his comments to that effect in the surrounding context, like section 4:5 of his treatise.

      You could argue that Tertullian was misidentifying which other gospels Marcion and his followers were responding to, but that's unlikely. For one thing, we don't begin with a default assumption that if author A reports what author B said, author A is probably mistaken. People usually don't misunderstand one another. If you want us to think that a misunderstanding occurred, you bear the burden of proof. Secondly, Tertullian had access to Marcion's writings and was a contemporary of Marcion's earliest followers, and he was interacting with them in a lot of depth. He was in a good position to know what they were arguing about the canonical gospels.

      Even if we were to conclude that Marcion and his earliest followers were addressing other gospels in general, not just the canonical ones, the fact would remain that the canonical ones were among the ones being addressed. And Marcion and his followers were responding to gospels attributed to named authors. It's probably not a coincidence that they placed so much emphasis on Galatians 2:9, since the passage names Peter, associated with the second canonical gospel, and John, associated with the fourth canonical gospel. The interactions between Marcion, his earliest followers, and their orthodox opponents don't make sense in a context of anonymous gospels.

    5. "What Wolter argues, therefore, is that the further designations using the the κατά construction were likely added after other gospels were written. These gospels would have needed to circulate, however, and to have become widely known, before specific names were needed to distinguish individual books of a multiple gospel canon. As such, what Wolter argues is that they were probably added following a gap of time after Matthew and Luke were written (to allow these gospels time to circulate), which would have been around the early-2nd century CE, as Wolter has stated."

      No, the gospels wouldn't have needed to be "widely known" in order for there to have been a need to distinguish among them and to distinguish between them and other sources, like what Luke refers to in the opening of his gospel. If Mark was as popular early on as Ferguson suggests, and Matthew and Luke were using Mark as a source, there would have been reason to distinguish among the documents at that point, prior to the second century. Titles would have been one of the ways of distinguishing the documents, but not the only way. And given how widespread the practice of distinguishing among the documents by the author's name was from the second century onward, the best explanation for how they were distinguished earlier is that they were distinguished by the author's name.

      "They probably had no original titles beyond the opening lines, which in Mark is Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ('the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ'). That is reflected in the record and is not a discontinuity, because the Gospels continued to be called by that name (i.e. gospels of Jesus). In fact, this title is even reflected in the Didache (8:3), which probably predated the attribution of the names and titles!"

      The passage Ferguson cites from the Didache refers to "his [Jesus'] gospel", in reference to a passage from Matthew. There's no reason to take that phrase as a title for Matthew's gospel, since those aren't the opening words of Matthew's gospel, that isn't the title Matthew is given elsewhere, and the phrase fails to distinguish Matthew from the other relevant sources. It was common at the time to refer to the gospels collectively as "the gospel", and "his gospel" would have been an equivalent. It doesn't follow that "his gospel" was a document title or would have been sufficient to distinguish one gospel or one source of a similar nature from another.

    6. "The reason why Mark was chosen is because there was specifically negative material about him Acts (15:37-40). By picking a character with a negative reputation, but still connected to the apostles, the Gospel of Mark could be downgraded without removing it from the canon."

      There are many figures in the early church who had something negative said about them (Nicodemus, Apollos, Barnabas, etc.). Mark isn't the only one who falls into that category. Why, then, was there such widespread agreement that Mark was the author of the second gospel?

      And the second gospel isn't criticized by the early Christians in a way that would be relevant to Acts 15. When Papias refers to the disorderliness of Mark's gospel, while also referring to the gospel as accurate and unfalsified, he isn't saying anything that brings Acts 15 to mind. Furthermore, the vast majority of early Christians don't criticize Mark's gospel, even in the insignificant way Papias does. They refer to Mark as Divinely inspired scripture, alongside the other gospels. The fact that Mark was less popular than the other gospels doesn't prove that there was a widespread perception that it needed "downgraded". There's no reason to think that Christians, heretics, Jews, and pagans across the world agreed to accept Markan authorship as a means of downgrading the document. Being less popular isn't equivalent to needing downgraded, and a need for downgrading, if such a need had existed, wouldn't have manifested itself in universally attributing the gospel to Mark on the basis of Acts 15.

    7. In closing, I suggest that people think about the context of early Christianity and whether it was a setting in which the gospels are likely to have circulated anonymously for nearly a century. Christianity wasn't a philosophical system of ideas that were being promoted independently of authority figures. Rather, it was a system founded on the authority of named individuals, starting with Jesus and going on to the apostles and other individuals who were named (Matthew 10:1-3, Mark 3:13-19, Ephesians 2:20, etc.). Luke's gospel opens with a reference to the significance of eyewitnesses (1:2), a concept that requires distinguishing among sources (differentiating between those who were eyewitnesses and those who weren't), which would include distinguishing among the authors of written sources. The fourth gospel expresses an interest in authorship, its own authorship with the implication of concern about authorship more widely (John 21:24). Ferguson raises doubts about whether Papias was discussing the authorship of the canonical gospels or the authorship of other documents instead, but there was a concern about authorship of gospels or similar documents either way. And Papias cited an earlier source (the elder, probably the apostle John), who likewise was interested in authorship issues. The same can be said about the authorship concerns expressed in the dispute between Marcionism and Christian orthodoxy. I've cited other sources in the same timeframe, prior to the late second century, with similar authorship interests.

      In that sort of atmosphere of concern for named authority figures, distinguishing among sources, and trying to discern who wrote documents like the gospels, it's far more likely that the gospels were circulating with authorial attributions than that they were circulating anonymously. There would have been a high degree of interest in the gospels' authorship well before the second half of the second century. And early belief in their traditional authorship attributions provides a far better explanation for the prominence of the gospels and how little dispute there was about their authorship.

      Regarding the "we" passages in Acts and their implications for the non-anonymity of the third gospel, see here. I've argued elsewhere that the fourth gospel not only expresses interest in its own authorship, but also identifies its author as John the son of Zebedee. See here and here.